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Suicide and Bullying: Can Video Games Be a Lifeline?

Dave Owen | 4 Mar 2014 19:00
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Jennifer Hepler was senior writer at BioWare for Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2; games that feature prominent homosexual relationships. "The most amazing experience of my career as a game writer was getting a fan latter after Dragon Age 2," she says. It came from a young fan who was struggling with the realization that he was gay. "He had never seen a gay relationship portrayed as anything other than meaningless casual sex. He'd never seen it portrayed as romantic," Hepler said. "He was really suicidal when he picked up Dragon Age 2."

The romance with male companion character Anders showed this player that a relationship between two men could be loving and genuine. "By the end of it he had decided that he wasn't going to kill himself," Hepler said. "He was going to devote his life to finding that kind of passion and romance in real life."

Although he has not had feedback as specific as this, indie developer Will O'Neill has frequently heard from players of his game Actual Sunlight, a short and candid story about love and depression. "Actual Sunlight has taught me that hope can spring from strange places," he said. "As blunt an instrument as it is, many players have nonetheless told me that they found a great deal of grace and inspiration in the experience. I don't know if that spurred them to confront themselves in a way that was more than momentary or spiritual, but I suppose even that could be the first step in making some type of change."

These are, of course, anecdotal examples, but they serve to demonstrate the impact a video game can have on someone's life. "I've been impressed with how psycho-active video games are," Kline said. "They really get into people's heads in a really profound way." He points out the media's propensity to focus on the negative side of this: distraction, addiction, violence. "To invert that, if we can imagine that video games are that psychoactive and can hijack your mind in that way, we also have to accept that they can have a profound impact in other ways," he said. Those impacts can be positive.


Yet attempts to openly engage with serious social topics are rarely seen in the triple-A space. "We wanted to explore a lot of weighty real world topics [in Dragon Age] and look at them through a fantasy lens, because you can poke a lot harder at those topics if you're talking about elves as opposed to real world races," Hepler said. "If you're doing a game where you're not trying to look at those sorts of things, it might just seem like more trouble than it's worth to bring them up and deal with the backlash that you can get for trying to put any sort of diversity or social justice issues into games."

She speaks from experience; the Dragon Age games were the subject of a severe backlash for their inclusion of homosexual relationships. This was a contributing factor to an online hate campaign against Hepler. Actual Sunlight is currently on Steam Greenlight, and many comments there voice the opinion that a game isn't the place to address an issue like depression.

"People like to keep games in a box," Miao said. "They don't realize that games as a medium have a really wide range and that they can address a lot of issues." Both Miao and Hepler agree that the immersive nature of games can also make tackling such issues a sensitive endeavor. Players invest a great deal of time in games, often making them a more personal experience. "Playing a character that you relate to is very different when you have, say, a male romance character coming on to you, compared to watching two guys in a TV show," Hepler said.

The threat of a backlash could be enough to deter larger developers and publishers from including social issues in their games. Miao worked at EA before he took the reins of Pixelberry. "I think with triple-A games the budgets are too large to take a risk," he says. EA has run campaigns around inclusion for the LGBT community, showing that people there do care about these issues. "But to get from people caring about these issues to actually getting them in the game will take a lot more work," Miao said.

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